Speaking of language

At Renascent, we use person-first language. Person-first language is language that acknowledges someone as a person before describing their personal attributes or health conditions. Calling someone an addict dehumanizes that person and can link a substance use disorder to their individual identity. A person is not defined by their illness or health condition.

Language that shames and belittles people can lead to a cycle of behaviours and attitudes that isolates and marginalizes people who use substances.

For many people in need of addiction treatment and support, person-first language may introduce a new way of thinking about others, or even themselves. Some of the most common search terms used when people are looking for help include, “Am I an addict?” and similarly “Is my loved one an addict?” In transparency, these are also words we incorporate on our website, with hopes that people will find their way to Renascent for help. 

In this post, we’ll take a look at stigmatizing language, and how to recognize and reduce it in order to break down barriers to recovery.

This blog post includes information published with permission from The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction’s Overcoming Stigma Through Language: A Primer

What is stigma?

Stigma is any attitude, belief or behaviour that discriminates against people. When it comes to substance use, stigma impacts people with lived and living experience, as well as their families. Stigma often emerges in the form of derogatory language that shames and belittles people. Such language can lead to a cycle of behaviours and attitudes that isolate and marginalize people who use substances.

Stigmatizing language

Stigmatizing language and disrespectful behaviour affect the way people see themselves and how they are treated by society as a whole. It is important to remember that a substance use disorder should be treated as a medical condition. Shifting language to more accurately reflect the nature of the health condition can lead to wider support of life-saving interventions. Some people internalize the stigma surrounding substance use, causing them to feel ashamed and to struggle with feelings of worthlessness. Other people’s negative attitudes towards them can amplify and further reinforce these feelings.

International studies by the World Health Organization show hazardous alcohol and drug use disorders are among the most stigmatized conditions.

What does stigma look like?

Stigma isolates and separates people who use substances or have substance use disorders. We reinforce stigma with the words we choose, how we treat others and how we view ourselves. Most of us encounter stigma in our daily lives and we can amplify or extend it without meaning to. The attitudes we hold without being aware of them include assuming people choose to live with substance use disorders.

Stigmatizing language and attitudes towards people who use substances can sound like:

  • Prejudice towards a person’s identity by equating that identity with substance use (e.g. calling someone an “addict”)
  • Belittling a person’s value based on their use of substances
  • Dehumanizing a person through labels (e.g., using the term “junkie” to describe a person who uses substances)

The communities and society we live in influence us, and we can internalize stigmatizing words and beliefs. 

Here are some examples of how stigma can make a person who uses substances feel:

  • A sense of shame that stops you from seeking help
  • Believing you, as someone who uses substances, will not receive help if you ask for it
  • Feeling that you are not heard, seen or cared about

Stigma can make a person feel like their life doesn’t matter.

How does stigma hurt people?

Stigma is a significant barrier to well-being and good health for people who use substances. This is not just semantics. Stigmatizing language and disrespectful attitudes have real-life consequences that can lead to blame and punishment. Stigma is both present and harmful at all levels of society, even among healthcare practitioners, law enforcement officers and social workers. It can create barriers to accessing treatment and other important services. Studies confirm that the use of stigmatizing language can have negative impacts on people’s well-being. Using person-first, non-stigmatizing language encourages people to seek help, increases the availability of and access to quality healthcare services, and encourages unbiased, effective policy.

Stigmatizing language discourages people from seeking help. Even though substance use disorder is a health condition, people often do not seek help, not wanting to be labelled “an addict,” even within their support networks.

It’s time to change our language

Stigmatizing language is inaccurate, hurtful and disempowering to vulnerable people and, when internalized, ourselves. We can make a difference by using words that respect the dignity of all people who use substances, focus on the medical nature of substance use disorders and promote well-being. 

Say this, not that

By changing the words you use, you can help break down negative stereotypes one conversation at a time. Avoid using language like asking someone if they are “clean” or “dirty.” These terms can decrease self-esteem and effectiveness of treatment for someone suffering from a substance use disorder. Instead of “druggie,” use “person who uses substances.” Instead of “addict,” use “person with a substance use disorder.”

Instead of this…Say this…
You’ve been drinking a lot lately. Why can’t you just stop? You know I’m concerned.”“I notice you’re drinking more than usual. Have you noticed the change or do you have any concerns?If so, is there anything I can do to help?”
“I have been clean for six months.”“I haven’t taken any substances in six months.”
“They lied. They said they were sober but they’re using again.”“Life can be difficult. Emotional pain, trauma and changing life patterns can be challenging for a person navigating their recovery. I understand a person’s pathway to well-being is often not linear and recurrences can and do occur with some people as they work on change.”
“Do you know what to do if you see an overdose?”“Do you know how to help a person who’ssuffered an overdose?”
“I think they’re high on the job; they shouldbe fired.”“I think they may have a substance use problem. We should explore whether there is anything we can do to help them get into a better space. Don’t we have a policy that keeps the workplace safe and cares for someone who is ill?”

How to intervene when confronted with stigma?

When you hear…You could say…
“When I see those addicts downtown, I can’timagine why they don’t do something about their lives. You’d think they’d show a little self-respect; it’s disgusting how they choose to live.”“What someone suggested to me was to imagine a child in front of me who had done their very best. Then ask myself what problems they must have encountered as they grew up, and be dealing with today, to be suffering so much. Once I started doing that, it struck me that they must be leading a life they never imagined. I wonder if there issomething we can do to help? At the very least, we can offer our respect for their humanity and use person-first language.”
“Well, I see Fred’s finally back at work. It’s been 28 days, so it’s a no-brainer where he’s been. I wouldn’t have the nerve to show my face if they had to send me to detox. He must be really desperate for money to come back. Keep an eye on your stuff.”“I was worried about Fred’s health as well.I read up on substance use disorders so I could have a better understanding of what he’s going through. Did you know that stigma is one of the largest barriers to getting help? I think that’s why the company has medical benefits that cover substance use disorders to support them in getting help, so we don’t lose valuable employees to a health condition. I’m going to make a point of welcoming Fred back to work to help encourage him.”
“I don’t know what Suzy was thinking lastnight. The last thing she said to me before theparty was that she had to get home early toget her kids. Then there she was smashed,refusing to leave and it was embarrassing tobe seen with her.”“It sounds to me like Suzy was thinking about her family and responsibilities. I was concerned about her health. I read some material on substance use disorders and one of the indicators is losing the ability to act according to personal values. This inability may be a sign of a serious health issue.I’m going to share some information with her, as well as my concerns for her well-being.”

About the Authors

Renascent Staff
The staff at Renascent is passionate about helping people with substance addictions so they can reach their full recovery – with compassion, respect, empathy and understanding. Our staff includes our counsellors, all of whom have lived experience of addiction and recovery.